Icon of the Hospitality of God

IMG_7018Today is Trinity Sunday, the day we think of our doctrine of God and are invited to both enter into the mystery and to live its life. Today we think of what it means to call God Father, Son and Holy Spirit and this is the distinctive Christian way of talking about God. It is how we express the full mystery of God, who defies definition and yet has make God-self known in and through this. I say ‘God-self’ because we have to watch out for the very strong pull to call God ‘him’ and God is bigger than one gendered term can capture. Last Sunday, on the Day of Pentecost, the choir sang ‘Enemy of Apathy’, which identifies the Holy Spirit as she, because in Greek Sophia, wisdom, the Spirit, is she. So we have to get over the gendered stereotypes and narrow boxing in of God.

Today I want to talk about the Icon of the Holy Trinity, which is usually behind the altar in the north aisle. I’ve moved it here into the centre so  that more of us can see it and it is also on this week’s Notice Sheet. It is a copy of Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham. Rublev probably wrote his icon between 1408-1410 in the monastery of the Holy Trinity and St Sergius in what is now Moscow. Ours was written just a few years ago by Romanian icon painter, Cristi Pašlaru. It uses the story from the Old Testament of Abraham giving hospitality to three strangers and thereby finding that he has entertained angels who bless (Genesis 18). This story has long been taken as a prefiguring of what Christianity termed the Holy Trinity.

Rowan Williams, formerly bishop of this diocese, in a book on praying with Icons of Christ  (The Dwelling of the Light, 2003) counsels caution about identifying each character in this icon with a particular person of the Trinity, not least because it can try to split up the Trinity into three characters in a drama. And the point of the Trinity is that it always acts as a whole. Our understanding of God becomes unbalanced and strays into error when we forget that balance. It’s a note of caution we should hold when we hear the current tendency to talk about Jesus all the time as if he’s an imaginary friend. You need the whole of the Trinity for balanced Christian faith. Rowan Williams says in his book “All that God does is done by the Holy Trinity equally”. So as we reflect on this picture we need to hold that.

To help us the picture is based around a circle. Make an imaginary telescope with your fingers and look at the image, you will see that the figures form a circle. That tells us that the three act as one and no part can be taken out. We need them all for a complete understanding of God and they are is dynamism between and within them. God is three and God is one.

The dominant figure appears to be the central one. He is dressed in a red tunic under a blue outer garment. This is the classic Eastern iconography for Christ. He is looking at the figure on his right, our left, while pointing to the bowl, possibly a chalice, on the table. Christ points us, draws us to the Father. The figure on the left looks at him with love in his eyes. The Father perhaps beholds his beloved Son, whom he gives to the world. Christ is God among us and for us; God making God-self known and accessible.

On the right the figure is dressed in blue and green. These are colours associated with water and vegetation, two things we need for life. Perhaps the intention is to reflect the life-giving action of the Holy Spirit, the vitality of Christian living and loving. The eyes of the angel appear to be on the vessel on the table, through which we commune and feed on God. The sacrament makes known and brings in its outward and visible sign the inward presence of the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ.

If you look carefully at the vessel, pointed to by the central figure, you will see what looks like a lamb’s face inside it. I’d not really noticed this before until we moved the icon and was able to get a closer look. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, given, shared, broken and poured out for us. We are invited to come and take the fourth unseen seat at this table and so participate, not just gaze but participate in God. We are invited to share the life and dance of this Trinity. God is not just to be gazed on from a distance but encountered and embraced as God pours out his love for us and in us.

Then there are the feet. These complete the circle and the Father and the Spirit are united.  God is complete in God-self. And it is God’s generosity and love that makes space for us at this table. It is feet that brought the angels to Abraham. The feet can remind us of the encounter on the road to Emmaus and so many pilgrim journeys where God becomes known. These feet are washed by the Son with a towel on the night he was betrayed in the shape and form of his puzzled disciples. They are washed as we care and tend for the poor, those most in need, the hungry and homeless. As I expressed in the opening hymn for my installation last week, ‘With this towel, said Christ the Saviour, I will wipe my people’s feet washed in streams that flow from passion, met at altar and in street’. We are commanded to do likewise.

Behind each of the figures is a symbol. Behind the right hand angel is the Holy Mountain, where God’s revelation is revealed, the Transfiguration made known and the Sermon on the Mount given. Mountains are places of encounter and that encounter is Spirit-filled.

Behind the central figure is a tree. Abraham’s encounter takes place at the Oaks of Mamre but trees are important in other ways. There is the tree of knowledge at the centre of the Garden of Eden and the fall is a foundational theme in Genesis. It is on a tree, the cross, that salvation is brought and all that the fall represents is redeemed.

Behind the third figure there is a structure, perhaps a house. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places prepared for us (John 14). We have a home in the Trinity, which is our source and goal. God invites us in and of course we come back to the vessel which invites us to share, to taste and see how gracious the Lord is.

This icon is saturated with imagery and allusion. But it invites us to delight in God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; as creator, redeemer and sustainer; as mysterious, present and indwelling. Whatever image or language you take, no one word will do and we always need these three for balance and any hope of a full understanding. The Trinity can be a mind-bending doctrine. So perhaps, as with the greatest mysteries, it takes the arts to help us comprehend – I will may be talk about music on another occasions for that. 

Today we celebrate our doctrine of God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It invites us, through this icon, to participate in its life and love. When we think and talk of God we need the balance of the Trinity so that mystery, presence and indwelling are present for God is always active in God’s fullness, even if our focus is more narrowed at any one time.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 30th May 2021

About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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